Imagine a vast pine forest looming before you. You’re standing in the middle of a clearing listening to the sounds of nature around you. Birds are chirping, the wind is rustling through the trees, and off in the distance, you can hear the waves crashing onto a beach. The fresh smell of pine engulfs your senses.\nThis beautiful area is my family’s campground in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. That is, until five years ago, when the area around our campsite on Duck Lake was destroyed by a devastating fire. In 2015 twenty-one thousand acres of Michigan forestland burned and, to this day, there are still areas that remain decimated.
Today, half of the Duck Lake forest area has been destroyed by the combined influence of natural disaster and subsequent logging. \nStories like the Duck Lake forest exist all around the U.S., but the effects are far more severe than the loss of a beloved campground. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, an average of 18.7 million acres of forest are destroyed each year. That’s the equivalent of 27 soccer fields eliminated per minute.\nWhat is causing this decline? I see three main factors:
- growth in agriculture,
- natural disasters.
Let’s look at each of these in turn. \nAmerica is a growing country, with a growing population. In an article written by the U.S Department of Agriculture, the U.S population is projected to grow by more than 120 million by the year 2050. This means that, as the population grows, so does the need for more housing and space for people to live. During the 1990s, a push for more urban living caused 60% of all U.S. housing to be constructed on or near areas of wildland vegetation. An additional 18 million hectares of private forest – each hectare equals 100 standard acres – are expected to experience housing density increases by 2030 – a number which is estimated to exceed 20 million hectares by 2050.
Along with an increase in population comes a need for more agriculture and farming. According to a USDA report, farmland accounts for over half of U.S land mass and almost half of that farmland was once woodland that was clear cut to create more space for farming and, where forests do still exist, grazing livestock on the underbrush (which can help prevent forest fires) has decreased by 59% in the last 70 years.
While agriculture is obviously a valuable endeavor and necessary to our society, it’s also a reality that expansion of farmland can impact forests.\nAnd finally: natural disasters. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, forest fires are the most common natural disaster that causes deforestation. In America alone, 24 million acres of forest have been destroyed by fire in just the last three years – California lost almost 2 million of those acres during the wildfires in October and November of 2018 alone. \nSo what can be done?\nOn the reactive side, we can look at reforestation, or planting trees in areas that have been damaged by natural disaster or urbanization. While new trees are important, this approach does have several limitations.
The cost to reseed or replant an acre of land is 70 dollars, not including the cost of labor. This makes the cost of reforestation expensive. In areas that have been destroyed by urbanization, reforestation can be ineffective because the soil has been greatly depleted. Forest soil by nature has different layers, or “horizons,” each of which is necessary for roots to grow. In areas where the soil has been disrupted (such as cities and towns), the trees may never take root. Therefore, the time and energy it takes to replant an area exposed to fire or construction may be ineffective.\nAlso on the reactive side of the equation, we can look at space-efficient agriculture, urban landscaping and gardening.
Although they do not restore original trees, these approaches address the issue of CO2 recycling that becomes a challenge with the elimination of forests. Hydroponics systems, crop rotation, cover cropping, green roofs and urban gardens are innovative approaches that can help in this area.\nWhile we need to address deforestation after it occurs, we can also be proactive to reduce the impact of deforestation ahead of a fire or other clear-cutting.\nIn terms of forest management, there are multiple programs to help improve forests. The Conservation Reserve Program, created by the U.S Forest Service and is a land agency provided by the Farm Service Agency.
Farmers enrolled in this program receive a payment for agreeing to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species. This will improve the environmental health and quality of the land. The goal of this program is to re-establish water quality, prevent soil erosion, and reduce the loss of wildlife habitat. \nTwo months after the fire at my campground on Duck Lake, my family went and surveyed the damage. It was crushing to see the black stumps of dead, burned trees.
While we know that some level of deforestation is inevitable, researching new ways to protect the forest land we do have and replace the benefits of the forests we’ve lost helps all of us. It is important to protect our trees, from coast-to-coast. Like Theodore Roosevelt, the founder of National Parks Service, once said “The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem, it will avail us little to solve all others.”